CATCH THE SWARM: Roberts Speaks Following Trip to Croatia

dalton roberts, post 2023 grand prix zagreb open
Dalton Roberts -- Photo: Tony Rotundo

He says now that the feeling was one of liberation. It had been a while since Dalton Roberts (60 kg, Army/WCAP, world #18) had been able to attend a mid-season overseas trip, and the excitement provided a charge.

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Roberts, a two-time US World Team member in addition to a catalog’s worth of other credentials, couldn’t help but see things a little differently than before. International competition itself was nothing new. Far from it. In fact, the last international trip for Roberts prior to the recent Grand Prix Zagreb Open in Croatia was the ’21 World Championships. But that’s the catch. Following the Oslo Worlds, Roberts had designs on spending a portion of the ’22 season training and competing overseas. Except, he couldn’t. Not just he, but Army’s World Class Athletes Program altogether. They were removed from one roster, then another, both times due to security concerns. This has been covered enough by now.

When Roberts finally found himself with an opportunity to contest a legitimate international opponent two weeks ago in Zagreb, he — violently — took advantage of it.

Facing Mateusz Szewczuk (POL) in the round-of-16, the Northern Michigan University grad swarmed, as if he had entered the match already on fifth gear. Roberts’ customary style that is founded upon heavy pressure was accompanied by seething conviction. Every motion he made or compelled resulted in a scoring chance, that is before the blitzing affair ended in the first period with a flourishing four-point arm throw. In the next round opposed by Japan’s Maito Kawana, the only deviation resided on the scoreboard, not in the sense of purpose. Kawana, perhaps a more stout operator than was Szewczuk, proved difficult to compromise on-the-feet; but Roberts nevertheless had no problem overwhelming Kawana in spaces, and the match ultimately came down to a tight second period in which Kawana benefited from a passivity point and questionable step-out call.

Roberts exited the competition with a 1-1 record as well as a two-step increase in United World Wrestling’s current rankings. Just as important was what came next. After the event wrapped, Roberts and the rest of the USA Senior delegation in Croatia went from Zagreb to Porec for training camp. Over the past two years, Croatia has increased their presence on Europe’s camp circuit, which has helped make Porec as desirable of a training destination as Hungary in the eyes of many top competitors. Roberts loves competing, but he certainly holds multi-national overseas training camps in appropriately high esteem and the goings-on in Porec resulted in a solid dose of encouragement.

Dalton Roberts — 60 kg, Army/WCAP

5PM: In Zagreb, you were completely physically dominant to me in those matches. We’re used to your style. There were the hallmarks of a Dalton Roberts performance. But it was like there was extra juice. I started calling you “The Swarm”.

Dalton Roberts: I was ready to compete, man. I was ready to compete internationally, too. The last time I had done that was Oslo, really. To actually get some real foreign competition, I was ready to kick everyone’s butt, even though that second match didn’t go my way. I need to be a little more technical in some situations, but I felt really good. I was ready to walk through that entire tournament. I was ready for five matches that day. It felt like the dog got let off the leash a little bit. I hadn’t had a lot of opportunities recently that felt deserved or earned. When I got one, I wanted to make the most of it.

5PM: As far as how you gear up for an overseas tour, since it had been a little while dating back to your last trip, did it feel different getting back into the swing of things? Also, did you look at it differently compared to how you did pre-pandemia?

DR: Yeah, I would say so because I take these opportunities less for granted now, not that I really took them for granted before. But pre-COVID, it was just, Hey, we’re going overseas. There were less hoops to jump through as far as that goes. Now when you get an opportunity to go overseas, you better jump on it because you don’t know when the next one is. Shoot, who’s to say that the next pandemic isn’t right around the corner? You better get what you can while you can. It felt good to be back in what appeared to be some pre-COVID normalcy.

5PM: This was a “Ranking Series” tournament. It was also well-promoted and well-populated with athletes. You had been in Ranking Series tournaments before. Did this one have a “big fight feel” to it, like a big tournament?

DR: Yes. It wasn’t at the same arena in Zagreb as the last time I competed, but it felt like there was a larger excitement around it. The whole Team USA delegation with men and women’s freestyle and Greco felt like a World competition. It felt like a World Championships just with the size of our delegation, and other teams had similarly-sized delegations, as well.

It definitely felt like it received the appropriate marketing and build-up, and it resulted in very solid numbers. And I feel like it should be that way. I hope that all of the tournaments going forward are like that. I don’t know the reasons behind it. Maybe UWW incentivized it more in terms of medals, or maybe the Ranking Series is starting to take hold and people are realizing that ranking points actually do matter come time for the World Championships. It did feel different.

5PM: This was a legitimate World-level type of tournament in terms of talent and size. At this stage of your career, is there a switch in strategy for you depending on  if it is an overseas competition or domestic? Stylistically, we know you’re going to bring heat, but do you adapt based on the competition?

DR: No. Maybe that is where I differ from other guys, but I try to keep things simple. In my mind, I want to win every tournament I enter. How do I so is usually pretty similar. But for the most part, foreign or domestic, my approach is always the same: attack and be relentless. If I can do that, I feel like 99.9% of the time, guys just can’t hang. Sometimes, I slip up. But my approach, regardless of the weight of the tournament, is the same.

5PM: Porec has started to become a focus for guys around Europe and elsewhere because Croatia has really raised their game when it comes to camps. It’s like they want to be another Hungary. You hadn’t been to an overseas camp in a while, either. Did this one feel reinvigorating at all?

Dalton Roberts: It did. I was excited, not just to learn from these guys — and they were open to helping me and me helping them — but also to compete. At that camp, there were a lot of medals floating around that room and I’m trying to earn my medal everyday. So if I can compete against these guys in practice, that builds confidence.

It’s a time to learn. I think there is a time for competition. You put in all that work, you practice, you compete. Then you go back to practice and you learn, especially with that camp. Just figuring out where I have a deficit, trying to fill that, and matching up with these styles is a little different. They are a little different, the Europeans. They wrestle differently than your stereotypical American. It’s good to learn from them, and then you can give something. It’s not all just take, take, take. If I can help them with something, that’s good, too.

5PM: One of the things you’re known for is being a guy who is always there. If a practice is scheduled, you’re there. It doesn’t matter how many sessions are scheduled and you’re beat up, you are still there. This time around, did your body have to catch-up a bit with the change in routine out in Croatia?

DR: No, I do try my best to make everything regardless of what my body feels like but that might start to be changing. Not to be “that guy”, like, Oooh, I’m sore, I’m getting older… No, I’m not pulling the old-age card yet. I’m not there yet. But I am trying to listen to my body a little more because there have been times when I’ve tried to tough something out and it is the law of diminishing returns. You get less out of it, and then you end up getting hurt. So, then maybe you should listen to your body. I’m trying to be more intuitive about that for longevity purposes. But if I’m doing something, I’m there 100%. I want to make the most out of everything, just like at the beginning of this interview. I want to make the most out of everything.

5PM: Army has a pretty good reputation for athlete management and knowing when to give a guy a break. We’re now hitting a weird phase where there will next be Armed Forces, then a gap, and the spring ratchets everything up. Do these conversations about training blocks and recovery take place between you and your coaches?

DR: Yeah, I 100% trust my coaches and they trust me. When I tell a coach, I’m feeling this, maybe I should do that instead of this, they trust me and I trust them as far as the training schedule and when we peak. They have all that down. The biggest thing is just trust. We have that between each other. I think you have to have that. They trust that we’re doing the best thing for our careers, because we need to; and they are doing the best they can for our careers because we co-rely on each other. It is by all means a professional sports organization. We have goals, and we have to meet those goals and benchmarks. We trust each other that we’re going to do whatever it takes in each other’s best interests to get there.

5PM: I have to start asking more “fun” questions. We’ll start with you: who is your favorite wrestler from another country?

DR: The guy Kamal (Bey) beat to win Junior Worlds, Azkhol Makhmudov from Kyrgyzstan. He is wrestling (Roman) Vlasov in some super match soon. Last year at the World Championships in Serbia, he made it look effortless. He looked like a large cat playing with an antelope before it kills it. He knew it the whole time, that it was a slow game to his opponent’s demise. He could also win matches without playing with his meal. But, by gosh.

5PM: Who is your favorite American to watch?

DR: I would say that (Spenser) Mango, for inspiration. That was my answer after I won Fargo. They asked me my favorite Greco wrestler and I said “Spenser Mango”, which is cool now since he’s my coach and friend, my confidant and mentor. And then Andy (Bisek), as well.

5PM: What has been the best part thus far about joining Army/WCAP?

DR: I would say the family dynamic. Like I said, we all have each other’s best interests in mind. We’re family first and competitors second. I’m always trying to help someone, and someone is always trying to help me. The old adage of “iron sharpens iron”, I truly believe we have that. And come 2024, that iron is going to be pretty darn sharp.

5PM: You were someone who as a young man in high school knew that they wanted to pursue this style, pursue this way of life. Now you have become one of the top Greco-Roman wrestlers in the country at any weight class. What would you say to the 16 and 17-year-olds now who have similar aspirations but might be pulled in different directions?

Dalton Roberts: You have to realize that not everyone wants what’s best for you. There are these wrestlers who are multi-time state champs from big states that get a lot of recruiting attention, and they are probably being pulled in different directions. Not all of the people recruiting these kids have the best intentions for them. The recruiters’ interests are what’s best for their teams, and what they want might not be what the student wants. I would tell high school students to chase what you want. Don’t think that everyone else wants what you do. At the end of the day, you have to make your choices and be the one who lives with them. Make the decision that you truly do desire. Which for me, this is what I dreamt of. I’m happy living with my choices. This is awesome.

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